We Need More Religious Instruction in Schools — Not Less

A big part of our current mess has to do with how little about religion we actually know.

While violence attributed to religion is terrifying, one of the most disconcerting aspects of current public discourse is how illiterate and ignorant American citizens are regarding religion in general. Vitriol and xenophobia paraded as facts provide thin cover for a growing nationalistic intolerance.


Few conversations penetrate the divide between "my religion!" and "no more religion!" Instead a litany of uninformed monologues is confusing an already confused public. A wonderful feature of democracy — debate — is lost in the chatter of everybody being right and no one listening to what the other is saying. 

That’s too bad. Religious education offers keen insights into the human condition. The exploratory power of the human imagination is tremendous. To envision blue-skinned destroyers dancing till the end of the universe, watching a lotus flower emerge from the rubble; to contemplate the quiet brook that winds its way into a vast ocean, just as all of us wind through life into an inevitable void; to imagine a sun goddess trapped in a cave only to release her light back into the world. Mythologies are beautiful attempts to explain our place in the world.

Of course, at the moment religion is most associated with tales of terror. Scriptures are not void of horrifying imagery, as I wrote about on Sunday. These moral dictates served their place and time, however poorly; they should not speak to our world over a thousand, 2,000 years later. Ignoring their existence, however, will not make them disappear. 

America is one of the most religious, yet least religiously educated nations on earth. Part of the problem is we can’t separate scholarship from devotion. Forget academia, simple facts are challenging. As religion professor Stephen Prothero writes, Americans are not only ignorant of other religions — pundits and critics claim sharia law as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. (It is not.) We are also woefully ignorant of our own traditions.

Prothero cites the following statistics:

Only half of Americans can name even one of the four Gospels.
Most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible.
A majority of Americans wrongly believe that the Bible says that Jesus was born in Jerusalem.
Most Americans don’t know that Jonah is a book in the Bible.
Ten percent of Americans believed that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

Religious ignorance was not always part of the American landscape. Eighteenth and 19th century Protestantism resulted in an intense focus on scholarship. It was impossible to get a university degree or public school education without religious training. While today secularism is crucial if we want a diverse nation, we mistake religious education for indoctrination at our own peril.

In 1963, Richard Hofstadter warned of the anti-intellectual movement stifling civil discourse. Today market research shows that many Christians are turned off by doctrines — the "religious stuff" — while championing prosperity theology. We want to believe without trying too hard; we want belief to be enough; and we want what we believe to be what others believe. If we think the earth is 6,000 years old and Jesus’s return is imminent, well, Ben Carson’s presence should not shock us one bit. If we think the American way of life is reserved for a white, Christian electorate, well: Donald Trump.

Raised without religion, I fell in love with these mythologies while at Rutgers University, earning my degree in the subject in 1997. My thesis investigated how Buddhism and Hinduism are mistranslated in American society. For example: It is a recent vogue to link Jesus and Buddha. While there are certain moral crossovers, the actual systems are wildly different. Buddhism is a systematic assault transforming the mental patterns that lead to an unsatisfactory life. Put another way: When you’re in line or at a red light, you don’t need to check your phone every two seconds to feel connected to something other than your own thoughts. There are more effective and healthier pathways to dopamine.

Jesus and Buddha, however, did both emphasize the importance of action. Jesus’ faith was not static. Today, he’d much sooner be at a Black Lives Matter rally than preaching from an Orange County pulpit. Buddha’s system of meditation is equally immersive, with an emphasis on right action and right intention. Their approaches did not just happen, but were cultivated, struggled with, embodied. I fail to find any religion in which, at heart, this is not the case. Such actions are required of us today, although it’s hard to understand if you don’t know where your religion begins and another ends, or if you automatically write off all religion without contemplating its historical and modern importance. 

Religion is not wet clay to be molded however you see fit. You have to earn and live it every day. That doesn’t mean religions never evolve; Joseph Campbell famously stated that religions must change every generation to better suit the needs and challenges of the times. To do so, you need to understand their foundations; otherwise you never really know where others are coming from.

Prothero argues that religious education should be more widely integrated into our educational system. If America desires to be a multicultural melting pot, the study of world religions is essential. Religion is like language: The more you speak, the more people you can communicate with. I’m not suggesting an overhaul of public education to better reflect a 300-year-old Protestant dream. A few simple, non-dogmatic courses during one’s upbringing will do splendidly. Temperance before hitting "post" on comment boards wouldn’t hurt either.

In his introduction to the impressive 4,200+ page The Norton Anthology of World Religions, editor Jack Miles argues that such a comprehensive introduction to the six major world religions arrives at a critical point in time. You don’t have to be theistic to understand religion’s relevance. The foundation of every society began with the storytelling that became the basis of each religion. If we want to write a more peaceful and harmonious future, it is in our best interest to read the opening chapters.

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(LtoR) Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Reverend Margaret Cave, the Dean of Coventry John Witcombe and the Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Association of Great Britain, Ibrahim Mogra pose for photographers with a banner reading 'Coexist pilgrimage' outside Regents Park Mosque before setting off for an interreligious march for peace to St Thomas' Hospital in London on February 19, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe

(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.